Mary Clarkson wasn’t a traditional college student, much less a teacher. She chose to start her family first and then go to college. It wasn’t until she was in her late-20s that she had her first classroom.
And for the Anoka-Hennepin School District’s special education director, that makes being given the 2013 New Special Education Leader Award by the professional organization she’s a part of, all the more humbling.
Clarkson was given the honor by the Minnesota Administrators for Special Education (MSAE), a professional association that, among other things, promotes education and services for children with disabilities.
“I’m very, very honored to have got the award,” Clarkson said. “But it’s less a reflection on me and more a reflection on the wonderful people I work with and collaborate with.”
The “new leader award” that Clarkson won goes to professionals who have fewer than five years experience in their roles as leaders.
She’s been Anoka-Hennepin’s special education director for a little more than four years. Before that she spent three years as a special education coordinator in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District and prior to that, three years in a similar role in District 11.
Clarkson said she’s been drawn to special education since she was in high school, during a period that she worked for what was then the Brainerd State Hospital.
“It was really hard to see children and adults institutionalized,” she said. “Professionally, I knew I wanted to do something with children, that was a given, but the genesis of working in special education — that happened at the hospital.”
Today, Clarkson is passionate about seeing schools become more inclusive.
“Instead of seeing children with disabilities, we need to see children with unique abilities,” Clarkson said. “We should make everyone be a part of the school community, no matter where we are.”
Cherie Peterson, Anoka-Hennepin’s assistant director of special education, who helped nominate Clarkson, said she’s “a visionary leader who understands the complexity of meeting the needs of special education students.”
Clarkson serves on the MASE Board of Directors and is an adjunct professor at her alma mater, St. Cloud State University, where she teaches aspiring administrators.
“I will always advocate for special education,” Clarkson said.